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Friday, October 5, 2012

Romney\'s Attack on Big Bird Sows Confusion Abroad

Video from Le Monde of Mitt Romney's promise to cut the federal subsidy for public broadcasting during Wednesday's debate.

Mitt Romney's promise, during Wednesday debate, to cut into America's debt by ending the federal subsidy for public broadcasting generated an Internet backlash, and at least one popular new Twitter account, largely because the former management consultant appeared to suggest that the beloved “Sesame Street” character Big Bird was surplus to requirements.

Mr. Romney's decision to run against Big Bird gladdened American conservatives, who have long complained of a liberal bias on public television and radio channels, but puzzled many viewers abroad, where local versions of the educational program are po pular and well respected. In France, Le Monde reported that the slight against le Gros Oiseau threatened to spiral into “l'affaire Big Bird,” after President Obama - experiencing a certain esprit d'escalier - came up, a day late, with the retort: “Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It's about time. We didn't know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit.”

The German magazine Der Spiegel explained to readers that Mr. Romney's threat to the character that viewers of “Sesamstrasse” know as Bibo generated a Twitter-Sturm during the debate that reached maximum intensity in just 20 minutes.

A sad day for Bibo, the German version of Big Bird.

In a useful roundup of the comic images of an unemployed Big Bird circulating on social networks, the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reported, somewhat inaccurately, that Mr. Romney had tried to soften the blow by first telling viewers, “I love Garibaldo,” which is the name the character goes by in “Vila Sésamo.”

Garibaldo, star of the funkier Brazilian version of “Sesame Street.”

At least some of the confusion among viewers watching the debate from outside the United States centered on the question of how Mr. Romney expected to get votes by pledging to eliminate state support for televised educational programming, and news, which is taken for granted in much of the developed world.

As Joshua Keating explained in a post for Foreign Policy, scholars at New York University reported last year that Americans spend far less per capita on public broadcasting than a representative sample of 13 other na tions, including France, Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia and Canada.

Even factoring in money provided by states and local governments, Americans pay less than $4 a year for the television and radio programming they get from PBS and NPR. Canadians and Australians pay about 8 times more per capita, the French and Japanese 14 times more, Britons 24 times more and Germans 41 times more.

In a statement decrying Mr. Romney's comments, PBS noted, “The federal investment in public broadcasting,” about $500 million a year, “equals about one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget.”

In the context of the debate, though, what is probably more important than the fact that Americans actually pay a relatively small amount of money for public broadcasting is evidence that they a re convinced that they are paying a lot more.

As Politico reported, “Most Americans think public broadcasting receives a much larger share of the federal budget than it actually does,” according to a poll conducted for CNN last year. The results of that survey, which asked respondents to estimate what share of the federal budget was spent on certain programs, found that just 27 percent of Americans knew that the money for PBS and NPR was less than 1 percent of government spending. Remarkably, 40 percent guessed that the share was between 1 and 5 percent and 30 percent said it was in excess of 5 percent - including 7 percent who said that more than half of the federal budget was spent on television and radio broadcasts.

Asked if the spending on PBS and NPR should change, 53 percent called for it to be increased or stay the same, while just 16 percent said it should be eliminated entirely.

It might seem strange for anyone who knows that the federal govern ment spends so little on PBS to begin a discussion of necessary cuts there, but perhaps Mr. Romney has calculated that the undecided voters he is chasing might be among the three-quarters of the American population that thinks the subsidy is far larger than it is.

A spokeswoman for PBS, Anne Bentley, told USA Today that the Congressional subsidy does not go to PBS or NPR, but to local stations around the United States that pay fees in exchange for broadcast rights to their programs, which are produced with donations and revenue from other sources. Ms. Bentley added that Congressional support accounts for up to 50 percent of the operating budgets for some local stations in rural areas. “They're really in jeopardy of going dark if they don't receive funding,” Ms. Bentley said.

The producers of “Sesame Street” offered a comic tweet in the voice of Big Bird the morning after the debate, and a statement explaining that while they are “a nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization,” they are also “dependent on PBS to distribute our commercial-free educational programming to all children in the United States.”

Without support from the public, educational programming would be interrupted by commercials and need to take the concerns of advertisers for higher ratings into account.

As Alyssa Rosenberg noted on the liberal Web site Think Progress, Mr. Romney has been talking about Big Bird on the campaign trail. In an exchange with a voter concerned about the federal debt caught on camera by CNN in Iowa last December, he said: “I'm going to see PBS is going to have to have advertisement. We're not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird's going to have advertisements.”